Use “Urgent Story Questions” to Create Tension

When I’m reading—whether in an editing capacity or for pleasure—I constantly monitor my own level of engagement, and when I’m drawn to a story, I can usually pinpoint specific things on the page that create tension and thus keep me reading. There are times, however, when I’ve noticed that the pull I feel toward the story is not coming from anything on the specific page I’m reading at that point in time. Rather, it’s coming from what I call an “urgent story question.”

Learn how to make the most of "urgent story questions" in order to grip readers.

What’s an Urgent Story Question?

It’s a question that looms over the story and compels the reader to read on in order to discover answers. Sometimes it’s relevant to a mystery (What’s going on? What’s this all about?); sometimes it’s about the dramatic action (What’s going to happen?).

But that question persists over the course of pages and pages because the author knows how to raise the question and then stretch it over a long span, delaying the answer, upping the stakes of the question to make our need to know more urgent, and teasing us with small reveals that have us guessing anew. 

An Urgent Story Question is not the story-wide question. Rather, a story will have multiple USQs that come one after another.

Examples

I’m in the midst of reading three different novels right now:

  • 14 by Peter Clines, a new-adult thriller
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, a YA fantasy
  • Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman, a literary romance

In 14, the urgent story question (approximately 110 pages into the novel) is What’s going on with the creepy apartment building the main characer lives in? It’s the mystery variety of urgent story question—not about what’s going to happen next but about the nature of the threat to begin with. We readers have some idea that this apartment, called the Kavach building, is not right, but we’re not yet at the point where we have any idea about the nature of the wrongness.

I assume that at some point, we’ll find out what’s going on with the apartment building and the USQ will switch to something like “Will the characters escape the monster?” 

In Children of Blood and Bone, there are really two overlapping urgent story questions (approximately 200 pages in); one is dramatic and the other mysterious. First of all, I want to know whether the main character, Zélie, will make it to the sacred island before Inan, the antagonist, catches her. That’s a dramatic question—it has to do with what will happen. But there’s also the mystery question looming over the narrative: Zélie has just gained magical powers but doesn’t really know yet how to harness them or what they can do. So the other urgent story question is about what Zélie’s capable of once she harnesses her magic. 

In Call Me by Your Name (approximately 55 pages in), the question is all about whether anything will come of Elio’s obsessing over Oliver, the love interest. At this point in the story, Elio’s attraction is clear. But Oliver is all mixed signals and standoffishness. Will the relationship get beyond that state? This urgent story question is a dramatic one.

Guidelines for USQs

1. Change it up

An USQ will change and evolve over the course of the story. It should, in fact. This is a not a question that persists over the course of the entire story. It shifts several times.

2. Persistence

It should persist over several scenes, however. The story question gains its power by persisting, by nagging us with its lack of resolution. In fact, identifying USQs may be the most practical and useful way to identify distinct acts within a story. As John Yorke, author of Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey into Story says, “Sometimes it’s easier to think of structure in question and answer form.”

3. Urgency

It should be high stakes. That’s why it’s an urgent story question. The reader really wants to know.

4. Background

It can be in the background. That is, it can take a back seat to some other scene-level questions, desires, or conflicts, but it should remain on the reader’s mind. Early on in the classic middle-grade novel Bridge to Terabithia, for instance, there’s a scene-level question about whether Jess will win the race that the 4th- and 5th-grade boys hold every recess. However, the urgent story question is about Jess’s new neighbor Leslie. At the scene-level, we’re interested in the outcome of the race, but before and after the race, we’re wondering what will come of Jess’s relationship with Leslie, which we have a sense will be far more significant that the outcome of the race. 

5. Answers

Can the author answer the urgent story question? Yes. The story can reveal answers to the urgent story question, but the answer needs to lead to a new USQ.  

Book-wide Example

Here, by the way, is the chapter-by-chapter breakdown for Bridge to Terabithia. (I’m listing the chapter titles in italics, with the USQs in bold.)

1. Jesse Oliver Aarons, Jr. — This chapter introduces the character and his obsession with running; it may seem that the urgent story question is about whether he’ll win the race once school starts, but it’s actually about the people who moved into the Perkins’ old place. Who are they and of what consequence will they be?
2. Leslie Burke — This chapter is obviously focused on Leslie, the girl Jesse’s age, who has moved next door. The USQ is the same. Who is she? And of what consequence will she be?
3. The Fastest Kid in the Fifth Grade — This is the chapter in which the urgent story question about Leslie eclipses the race question once and for all. Who is she and of what consequence will she be?

4. Rulers of Terabithia — Now it changes: Jesse and Leslie form a bond and face down various tormentors together. What will come of their unions and will they find some way to best the tyrants?
5. The Giant Killers — Same USQ, just a bit more specific: Will they find some way to best Janice Avery?

6. The Coming Prince of Terrien — The USQ takes a subtle shift here. Things start going pretty well for Jesse and Leslie, but there’s a sense that something will harm their relationship, be it the new puppy, Jess’s sisters, or bullies. What’s going to happen to destroy the happiness/relationship?
7. The Golden Room — Same USQ. There are scene-level objectives and conflicts in these middle chapters, but a sense of foreboding, very purposely created by Katherine Paterson, the author, lingers over these chapters. What’s going to happen to destroy the happiness/relationship?
8. Easter — Same. What’s going to happen to destroy the happiness/relationship? These chapters all end with some major foreshadowing. This chapter is probably the most blatant: “But Leslie, what if you die? What’s going to happen to you if you die?”
9. The Evil Spell — Same. What’s going to happen to destroy the happiness/relationship? Jess is all worried about the rising creek, so we think that the bad thing coming will have to do with that.
10. The Perfect Day — Same. What’s going to happen to destroy the happiness/relationship?The chapter begins with Jess considering his anxiety about water. And then it ends with a bombshell reveal that changes the USQ. 

11. No! — Now the USQ is How will Jess cope with the news?
12. Stranded — And here, we continue to watch him cope. How will Jess cope with the news? Another way of stating this USQ: Will he heal?
13. Building the Bridge — The same here. How will Jess cope with the news? Will he heal?

Apply in Your Reading

In the next story you read, see if you can identify the USQs. Monitor yourself at the end of each chapter or scene. What’s the main question you’re wondering about? And remember:

  • It should be larger than the scene-level question, extending beyond the scene’s borders.
  • It’s not a subplot. 
  • It is something that persists and has urgency. 

Apply in Your Writing

I mostly recommend that writers use this concept as an aid for revision and maybe planning, not for drafting. But when you’re conscious of the USQs in your story, then you can do small things to agitate that question for the reader. 

  • Give some foreshadowing.
  • Misdirect the reader a bit. Get them guessing wrong. Have them anticipating future events.
  • Get the reader worrying about a negative outcome.
  • Keep the main character thinking about the USQ if their desires align with that USQ.
  • Capitalize on the character’s flaws. Have them avoiding facing whatever might answer the USQ; have their flaws create problems and delays in resolving the USQ.
  • Delay answers through side missions or subplots. Especially if you keep the characters thinking about or in some way feeling the impact of the USQ.

As I said, I’m obsessed with tension. Check out these other articles, which discuss tension:

And take a look at my courses:

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